“collaboration means ‘working together’. That’s why you see it in market economies. markets are based on quantity and mass.
cooperation means ‘sharing’. That’s why you see it in networks. In networks, the nature of the connection is important; it is not simply about quantity and mass …
You and I are in a network – but we do not collaborate (we do not align ourselves to the same goal, subscribe to the same vision statement, etc), we *cooperate*” —Stephen Downes
When work requirements are relatively simple, they can be addressed by standardized procedures and best practices. This is the type of work that is getting automated every day. Once a flowchart can describe a process, the algorithms can get to work replacing humans. Complicated work, where systems can be analyzed and understood, can be addressed through industry best-of-breed work practices and can be assisted by enterprise software to ensure people know what is going on.
But complex work requires much greater human involvement and the sharing of implicit knowledge, which cannot easily be codified or captured by software. Chaotic situations, which should be avoided, often require novel and untested solutions, as the crew and ground staff had to do for the Apollo 13 mission.
Understanding the environment and the type of problems we face is assisted by an understanding of the Cynefin framework, which I will be discussing in detail with Dave Snowden in our Learning & Sensemaking Exploratory which starts on 30 September.
Managing in complex adaptive systems means influencing possibilities rather than striving for predictability (good or best practices). Cooperation in our work is needed so that we can continuously develop emergent practices demanded by this complexity. What worked yesterday won’t work today. No one has the definitive answer any more, but we can use the intelligence of our networks to make sense together and see how we can influence desired results. This is cooperation and this is the future, which is already here, albeit unevenly distributed.
Shifting the emphasis of much of our work from collaboration — which still is required to get tasks done — to cooperation, in order to thrive in a networked enterprise, means reassessing some of our assumptions and work practices. For instance:
- The lessening importance of teamwork, versus exploring outside the organization may change our perceptions about being a ‘team player’.
- Detailed roles and job descriptions are inadequate for work at the edge.
- Getting rid of individual performance reviews and focusing on the performance of the whole organization.
Working cooperatively requires a different mindset than merely collaborating on a defined project. Being cooperative means being open to others outside your group. It also requires the casting-off of business metaphors based on military models (target markets, chain of command, strategic plans, line & staff). Cooperation is how we will find a vaccine for Covid-19.
The authors of African American Management History: Insights on Gaining a Cooperative Advantage, show how cooperation in business has historical roots and successful businesses do not need to only compete with each other.
“We define cooperative advantage as the benefits that an organization possesses and accrues due to its people-centered approach to engendering a spirit of care and community, meaningful dialogue, and consensus building, for the benefit of employees, customers, and community.” —MIT Sloan Management Review 2020-09-15
Competitive markets are not the only way to do business.
Cooperation is the essence of relationships between living things. We have evolved to cooperate.
“We found evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean. For a short time and against a specific set of opponents, some selfish organisms may come out ahead. But selfishness isn’t evolutionarily sustainable.” —The Independent 2013-08-02
Cooperation is our social imperative.
“Survival of the fittest is a convenient way to justify the cutthroat ethos of a competitive marketplace, political landscape, and culture. But this perspective misconstrues the theories of Darwin as well as his successors. By viewing evolution though a strictly competitive lens, we miss the bigger story of our own social development and have trouble understanding humanity as one big, interconnected team.” —Douglas Rushkoff
Hierarchies dampen cooperation by controlling the flow of information and knowledge. As Yaneer Bar-Yam explains in Complexity Rising, hierarchies have diminishing usefulness as complexity increases. Lateral connections are created through cooperation.
“At the point at which the collective complexity reaches the complexity of an individual, the process of complexity increase encounters the limitations of hierarchical structures. Hierarchical structures are not able to provide a higher complexity and must give way to structures that are dominated by lateral interactions.”